Lost Within Overlapping Identities: Who Am I?

Boy, Interrupted Vincent Pham vnp003@ucsd.edu
Boy, Interrupted
Vincent Pham
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“I’ll tell you who has it the hardest: white men,” Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) of the acclaimed NBC sitcom “30 Rock” said. “We make the unpopular, difficult decisions — the tough choices. We land on the moon and Normandy Beach and yet they resent us.”

It was his response to Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) and Tracy Jordan’s (Tracy Morgan) social experiment — to figure out if women or black men had it hardest in America. The loveable page-boy Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) politely chimes in, noting that he is also a white man.

“No, you are not. Socioeconomically speaking, you are more like an inner city Latina,” Jack retorted. Thus is the premise for this column: intersectionality. So what is intersectionality in the context of social issues? Kimberle Crenshaw first coined the term intersectionality in 1989 and published a 1991 paper in the Stanford Law Review; her research countered conventional understandings of anti-racist and feminist rhetoric and how it focused on a single identity. What Crenshaw argued is that the social justice camps failed to recognize individuals who have a foot in both territories.

If a woman of color is raped, will her experience be different from a white women being raped? Crenshaw’s argument is a substantive “yes” — not exhibiting whiteness will affect outcomes and social stigmas of the individual raped, and the extent of a woman of color’s experience intersects not only with her sex, but with her ethnicity, her socioeconomic status, her fluency in the English language and her awareness and level of education on available resources. As for Maroney and Jordan’s argument about whether the pitfalls of being a black man or a black woman are worse, there is no simple solution.

Let’s look at another example of the intersectionality of gender and race, as well as socioeconomic status. The “Grim Sleeper” is a menacing euphemism for a serial killer who has been convicted for 10 counts of murder in the South Central Los Angeles area from 1985 to 2007. The suspect, formally known as Lonnie David Franklin Jr., got his nickname from a 14 year lapse between the killings. The victims? All black women, many of which were seen as prostitutes or drug addicts. This isn’t a sweeping generalization to say that the Los Angeles police wholeheartedly disregarded the lives of Franklin’s victims, but this case could not be more representative of intersectionality. If the victims did not belong to the marginalized communities of being women and being black, but also the lower social echelons of the United States, would the investigation have gone differently? The gravity of the question is immense and one that should not be simply overlooked.

Late American poet and self-proclaimed “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde said in her poem, “Who Said It Was Simple,” that “But I who am bound by my mirror/ as well as my bed/ see causes in colour/ as well as sex.” Because we are not the addition of our several identities, but the multiplication of those identities, and thus every experience is intrinsically unique.